August 08, 2023

Author of the International Bestseller “The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging”

Dana Bernardino

The Art of Community
1Huddle Podcast Episode #107

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Charles Vogl, speaker, advisor, and author of international bestseller, The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging.

Charles joined the Peace Corps after college during the AIDS outbreak in Zambia. He then produced films on the hardships he saw that aired on PBS. Returning to school the following year, he attended Yale to study religion, philosophy, ethics, and business. It gave him an opportunity to observe spiritual traditions that have brought people together for thousands of years amidst hardship, which he referenced in his book. 

Vogl’s work now entails reconnecting workers which is no small task in the wake of a pandemic, where there has been more isolation recorded than ever before.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Charles Vogl shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “You and I right this minute are living in what is almost certainly the loneliest era of American history.”
  • “We have to schedule time where workers can have the kind of experiences to build a relationship.”
  • “If we want to invest in connecting workers, we need to have some sophistication on how we are asking them to use their time and money to do that.”

Sam Caucci (host):I have in front of me, this book. It’s pretty marked up as you might imagine, The Art of Community, Seven Principles for Belonging. And I think maybe a good place to start would be can you share with folks who maybe you’re not familiar with the book, a little bit about yourself and what led you to writing The Art of Community?

Charles Vogl: Yeah, happy to, Sam. So, when I was a very young man, I did some fun, interesting things. Right out of college, I was volunteering in ,what we call, a radical homelessness ministry in Southern California. And then subsequent to that, I volunteered in the US Peace Corps in Sub-Saharan Africa where I was in Zambia during the raging AIDS epidemic and also some political instability.

And then I came to the United States after that and I started what turned out to be an independent film company. And we made films that primarily aired on PBS on what we call high social impact media and I all that because those were all really, really, really challenging. We’re working on health issues in Africa.

Making films in New York City and, of course, addressing the homelessness issue in America. And what that long arc of experience taught me was how ineffective I could be by myself. In fact, I came back from the Peace Corps, really burned out and cynical. And it was after that that a mentor started teaching me that I had a superman strategy where I was trying to learn how to do everything.Well, guess what, it was exhausting me, it was ineffective. 

And, subsequent to my film work, which did well around the world, I went to go study religion, philosophy, ethics, and business at Yale University in Connecticut. And when I was there, I had this really rare opportunity to study spiritual traditions that have been bringing people together in really powerful ways for far more than a thousand years.

Right? In fact, you and I can leave right now and we can find descendants of traditions that are well over a thousand years. They’re still gathering. Many of these communities have stayed together through existentially threatening times, you know, genocide and famine, political instability. So, at some point, I was a man in his early forties and I had moved to San Francisco area to support my wife’s career.

And I was, at that point, a guy who had a history of making films for PBS. I lived overseas and I had a degree in religion and didn’t know how I was gonna contribute in any meaningful way. And I went to lunch with a guy named Kevin Lynn, who at the time had fairly recently founded a company called Twitch.

And over that lunch he shared with me how Twitch at the time had 50 million, five zero million, users. And he was confident it was gonna grow. And if anybody listening knows what Twitch is, you know he was right. But the interesting part of the conversation was Kevin said, what I really wanna do better is connect the people who are already using our platform, largely gamers.

He just said that just because he was thinking out loud, like what he’s working on, what the challenges were, or in that moment, Sam, my head almost exploded because there were all these things I wanted to share with Kevin and I had realized that I had just spent more than 10 years of my life, before that conversation, learning how to bring people together around shared values and purpose and how that’s been done for over a thousand years. 

So I went home to write what I thought was gonna be a 10 page white paper to give to my friend Kevin and put it online and see if anybody wanted to read it. Turns out I had a lot more to say, and when I was done it was book length and now you have a copy of the book.

So, the book is really a compilation of my formal learnings about how communities have been staying together for generations and generations. My own experience, trying to be effective in the world, bringing people together to handle really challenging problems, and then also speaking to people who are working in different contexts where we’re bringing people together around shared purpose and values, and where employees there are trust are really good at help them and make a difference in the world.

Sam: That’s a wild story. I guess, what do you, what do you find the reason is many organizations that you’re working with, what do you find that they’re struggling with in this moment as they think about culture and defining community? I mean, the word community feels like it gets thrown around a lot, inside of, 

Companies talk about their community of users, their community of their work workers. I guess. What, what learnings have you had as you’ve explored and done your work, across all types of verticals? 

Charles: Right, so let me just say, Sam, that after long reflections, I’ve realized that the people who reach out to me, maybe like you find the book, find there’s something relevant, reach out to me, are people in leadership roles who have organizations working on high stakes outcomes, which usually means, life and death is involved.

And they’re working in dynamic contexts. And that’s important because that means that any manual that’s written in January of 2020 is totally relevant. So typically, for example, people I talk to are working in healthcare where it’s obvious people die if you get it wrong. The military, education and high innovation tech, that has high impact on our culture.

And you say, what are they, what are they working with? Well, when they get it wrong, people die. It’s as simple as that. And that, and that’s actually very quantifiable. You know, just for example, education. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. The top universities in our country are spending millions and millions of dollars, to have students not hurt themselves, at better rates than they have been.

I mean, so we’re talking about ultimate challenges and keeping people safe. And here’s the reality, Sam, the research is overwhelming. You and I right this minute are living in what is almost certainly the loneliest era of American history, and I just recently looked at the new stats. I usually don’t, cause the trends are clear and we don’t need to keep revisiting them.

According to the latest research, one half of Americans, Sam, don’t have four friends. I don’t mean don’t have four friends at work. I don’t mean four don’t have four friends in their neighborhood. They don’t have four friends. We know that 15% of men in America, Sam, don’t have any friends. And according to the research, only 13% of Americans have 10 friends or more.

Full stop. Well, Sam, if you’re running an organization that’s working anything high stakes, right? Do you want the people on your team to consider the people that you’re working with at work, friends? And before you answer that, Sam, when one of your kids goes to the emergency department, Sam, do you want that team to consider themselves friends with one another or do you want them to treat each other with just professional ease?

Right. And I think we know the answer to that. Do you know the answer to that, Sam? 

Sam: Yeah. I think we want ’em to care a little bit about each other.

Charles: Right? Exactly. Right. So what are they worrying, What are leaders worrying about? They’re worried about the fact that we have teams working together where we are hiring out of a context, we’re training in a context where largely, unfortunately, Americans don’t seem to have the skills to create the relationships they want. 

And often we need to be effective in high stakes situations. And here’s the good news though the research has also been done. My favorite researcher on this topic is Marissa King, who was at Yale and she’s just recently moved to Wharton.

And she’s written in her book, Social Chemistry, about how in, company context, having friends at work is seemingly the silver bullet to many, many, many challenges. Engagement, absenteeism, turnover, accidents at work. And it’s not rocket science, right? If you have a friend at work and you don’t know whether you’re gonna do something that’s gonna burn down the building, you have someone to call who’ll give you an answer.

Who won’t? Cut you down for it. Right? We also know that when you develop those relationships at work, there’s an informal communication network set up that plugs in when the formal system fails. And all of us who have done high impact work that involve many people know you can’t always depend on the formal system.

Someone’s on vacation, somebody’s having a kid, somebody’s mad at somebody, right? And then we can pick up the phone and just get an answer, get something happening. All of that happens when we have relationships. Now, the contemporary context is we’ve moved into a video relationship, and that’s not existentially bad, but here’s what we do know.

It takes five times the amount of relationship time to develop an equivalent relationship as it does in real life in the physical world. That’s compounded by the fact that you and I, Sam, wanna spend less time on video calls than we do sharing a cold beverage at a sunset. Eating something crunchy, right?

So we need more time building relationships. We wanna spend less time doing it, and now are farther apart and more on video. Well, if we agree that what we need are teams that trust each other and cons, consider each other friends to handle a dynamic situation, high stakes, that means we have to invest as leaders.

To bring people together in contexts where they can develop those relationships. And what I’m finding when I talk to leaders, nonprofit, political, social, commercial is they don’t even know what those contexts look like. And I’ll give you an example, Sam. 

My wife is an executive in a billion dollar tech company here in the Bay Area, and she invited me to the Christmas party. Sure enough, I put on a shirt with a collar, which is unusual. We went to San Francisco and found parking, Sam. And I went to this party. Sure enough, this billion dollar tech company had rented out an entire club. When I got inside Sam, it was the exact party you think would be, designed by a 25-year-old with a Black American Express card.

There were three open bars. There was all you can eat hamburgers and french fries, and there was music so loud I could talk to nobody, and so this was the only three hours of the year where I was gonna meet my wife’s colleagues that she spends on many days, more of her time with them than she does with me.

This was it. This was my one opportunity this year, and I could talk to nobody, Sam. Here’s an example of a company that spent six digits to create an event where people came together and made it so nobody could connect, and they spent money doing it, Sam, and you say, well, Charles, maybe they didn’t want people to connect.

Maybe they just wanted to give people french fries, hamburgers, and loud music and drinks. You know, there’s nothing wrong with that. Well, Sam, they didn’t send us a coupon, right? They didn’t say go to In N Out on us. Right? They had me come to San Francisco and park and put on clothes. I didn’t embarrass myself.

My point is, I was literally standing in a place I was invited to spend time with people and couldn’t connect with them at all. My point is that’s how bad it’s, and that is not an unusual example, just one that I was physically at. So if we know that we’re having our workers, not connecting because of the new context, and we want to invest in connecting them, we need to have some sophistication on how we are asking them to use their time and money to do that. 

Sam: I’m gonna ask you how we do it in a second. 

Charles: Mm-hmm. 

Sam: Which, is probably not a simple answer, but as I look at like the US workforce, you’re talking about environments, high stakes.

One in two US workers today are a $400 parking ticket away from poverty. The volume of workers today that are on the edges, you know, I was talking to someone here in Newark the other day, works 81 hours a week, and when I hear work from home on television, I shake my head cuz it’s like, that’s a worker who works three jobs.

Like which one of the three jobs that that person I spoke with? Can they work from home at, because it’s not the Uber driving, it’s not the bartender down the street and it’s not working at Whole Foods. 

Charles: Right. Right.

Sam: And when you talk about community, then you look at organizations who have beautiful mission statements and fuzzy core values and community plugged into things on walls and words on walls. What’s the fix?

Charles: Well, there is a fix, Sam. It took us more than one generation to get here, and it’s not gonna happen in the next six months. Right. We’re not gonna get out of this. And we are on purpose ignoring much bigger context than got us here. Like we haven’t talked how we got here. How is it that our kids and we are living in such a lonely era and quite frankly, trends are getting worse.

Right? And there’s several researchers following that. One of them is Robert Putnam out of Harvard, and those forces that got us here are not going away. In fact, they’re getting stronger. And I’m very, very pessimistic about, as you said, those half of American workers. And I think if we talk in five years, it’ll be more than half of American workers.

But here’s what we can be optimistic about, in a desert, Sam, it doesn’t take a very big watering pot to bring up flowers. And as we’ve seen in California, one season of good rain changes the whole landscape of flowers, right? That doesn’t mean it isn’t a desert. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to change bigger forces that we’re having to contend with.

We can notice with the people we care about, with the people we have access to, with the people who turn to us to make a difference, we can make a difference. And I think that one of the problems that we have is isolation is Americans working so much, and we’re struggling as a country, as you mentioned, one parking ticket away from poverty, not having a hard time, not having to tighten their belts for a month, poverty.

And there’s no accident to that, right? There’s a system that was designed that is manifesting that one outta two people participating in our economy aren’t really making it right. God forbid they get a diagnosis, parking ticket, at least that goes away. Right? 

Sam: Makes me think about the point you make in the book. And I never thought about, and as I’m sure you agree, words matter and you talked about the concept of a boundary in a community.

And, when I looked at it, the first thing that jumped to mind is the boundaries we create to keep certain groups away from opportunities. 

Charles: Mm-hmm. 

Sam: And, I don’t know what you think about it, but that, that was one thing that jumped at me right away as I thought about, this point that we built it this way, kind of what you’re saying.

Charles: Yes. And all ideas and all tools can be used to construct or destroy, right. And it’s really about the values and intention of the user of that tool, which determines what’s gonna come about using that tool. Right. And since you mentioned boundaries, I’ll go explain that to listeners. When you and I want to bring a group of people together in a more tight-knit way, in a way that supports them, makes ’em healthier and safer and more resilient, right?

We have to figure out, well, what’s the boundary of the group people are bringing together? The reason is if we don’t have a boundary, if we don’t know who are those people and who are not those people, then we don’t know who the people are, we’re working to bring together. Now, that could be a self-selected group, it could be people in my neighborhood who want to talk to me, right?

But that doesn’t include, in my case, you know, people in Washington State who don’t want to talk to me. Right? There is some boundary and self-selecting is different than not having a boundary, but we need to know at what point are we not investing in certain people, otherwise we can’t invest adequately to bring people together.

Right. It becomes a time thing and then at some point it becomes a space thing. Cause I’m not gonna rent out whole stadiums because I just want people to have a good time. And that’s the boundary I’m talking about. And when boundaries are healthy, they’re based on shared value and shared purpose.

And that’s where the intention of the user comes in. If my intention is to be mean to certain people cuz I’m filled with hate, then guess what that boundary’s gonna look like. If my intention is to make sure people in my neighborhood, in a really, really challenging time with floods and economic changes, people in my neighborhood, are supported more by people who live near them, then that boundary’s gonna look very, very different.

Sam: When you, when you talk to leaders in organizations about this topic, what 

Charles: Mm-hmm. 

Sam: What change do you hope, and do you feel is realistic coming out of reading any number of your books or working with you? 

Charles: Well, there’s a couple of them. The first one is my aspiration is that they see the importance of, and then schedule time to allow the people they care about and depend on to create the relationships they want and need.

Generally, what’s taught in leadership in a corporate setting in this country is how to maximally extract. And if I want to do anything, I’m gonna change schedules. If I wanna change uniforms, I wanna change the furniture. The way I justify that is how I can extract more, right?And we know why, because if we just adopt the values of a sociopathic extractive system, then that’s what our leadership’s gonna look like. 

On the other hand, Sam, if you go to an emergency room with your sick child, my guess is you hope that not every choice made in the emergency room for the last 18 months was how they can extract more out of healthcare workers who are leaving at record numbers, who we know are burned out and we know have mental health issues that are frightening.

My guess is that you want that medical team to have management supporting them in their cooperation, in their health, in their rejuvenation in ways that are just about giving back. Right? Making them powerful. Right. So, do you have a question?

Sam:  Go ahead. 

Charles: Oh, so if we want these teams to be resilient, we have to schedule time where they can have the kind of experiences to build a relationship.

And for the purposes of teaching, I call those experiences, campfire experiences. I only call them that, because most of us have sat around a campfire and noticed that when we laugh, we felt more connected with the people who sat with us than before we got there. The question is, well, what’s going on there?

That we don’t have to find logs every time we wanna build friendships. And for the purposes of teaching, there are three criteria to campfire experience. One is, people have the freedom to come and go, which is to say they’re not coerced to be there. Campfire experiences you’ve experienced, Sam, nobody said, “If you’re not there, we know you’re not a team player and there are gonna be consequences.”

No, you were there cuz you wanted to sit on a campfire. Right. Two participants have an opportunity to have the conversation they want to have, possibly a vulnerable one. Which is to say, they’re not fulfilling an agenda. Right. Or they’re not. We’re gonna have a report about that. And that’s exactly what happened at the campfires you’ve sat at.

And the last one is, they need to believe. Well, I’ll say it in a different way. It needs to help them grow in some way they want to grow, right? And by the way, just making friends totally counts. So that’s why that Christmas party was a total failure. I did wanna go there, check, but I couldn’t actually have a conversation I wanted to have.

Because I didn’t have, couldn’t have any conversation, I wanted to have, spending three hours at a Christmas party didn’t help me be what I wanted to be or grow any, I wanna grow. So it was a total failure no matter how much they spent on open bars, right. 

Well, we have to have enough maturity in leadership to know that when we provide our teams these kinds of contexts, whether they’re literally sitting on a beach, whether they’re walking in a park together, whether they’re you know, sharing beverages somewhere, we have to know that those are the requisite experiences to create the connection and trust that we’re gonna need when things are less calm. 

And one of the ways we know that they’re working is after a series, and it’s always a series or your friend Sam, always created after a series of these campfire-like experiences. Other things were going on, but the least we had to have was these.

I wanna get back to the train of thought. Oh, we know they’re working because participants believe, and in this case, hopefully accurately that other people understand them intellectually, understand them emotionally, and accept them for who they are right now. And they have to get enough data. We have to get enough data to get that perception.

 And if we’re never given a context where we can get that perception, we’re never gonna feel that connection and belonging. Right? And then that safety goes out the window, and then when things get hairy, the communication doesn’t happen and the risks don’t happen. That drives remarkable results.

Sam: I just can’t help but think about this time of year, there’s a lot of graduations going on. There’s a lot of young people entering the workforce into some of these environments that are gonna throw the types of parties you’re talking about, right? What do you say to the 22 or 23 or 28 year old, entering the workforce, into these types of environments?What can they do? 

Charles: That’s great. First of all, to recognize that big events where you talk to lots of people very briefly, they can be fun and there is some benefit to that, but that alone is not gonna get you the kind of relationships you want. And quite frankly, you need to have a supportive community that makes you resilient as you grow in your career or just get by in America.

With the statistics you referenced, Sam, about how many, how many Americans are struggling, the experiences that generate those relationships are intimate experiences. They’re gonna have the characters that I described to campfire experiences. So one thing you can do is when you go to a mixer event, be it an alumni event or just a professional social event, fine, meet people.

It’s called, we call it expansion. When you’re just trying to meet more people, you’re expanding your network, but know that doesn’t actually do very much. So that’s when you have to take the initiative to invite people. It’s an instant experience, which could be sharing a cold beverage, walking in a park, breaking crusty bread next to the soup, sharing a hot bowl of noodles.

And I’ll tell you, if you look at my calendar, Sam, you’ll see that twice a week, every week, forever. I’ve already scheduled time on Friday nights and Sunday evenings to have those kinds of experiences. I don’t know what’s coming next year. But here’s what I do know. I’m not gonna be in phone calls in those times, and the reason is I know the way I’m gonna have the relationships that make my life rich is I’m going to invite people to fill those times with me. 

And now here’s what I invite people to Sam, and this is the only thing I invite people to do, things I like to do, because I know exactly Sam how much you wanna join me doing things I don’t want to do. I already know. So I only invite people to things I like to do. I like to walk around Berkeley, California. I live here. I’ve had friends walk with me in Berkeley, California. It totally counts.

Sam: I like that. 

Charles: Right. I like to go to the beach with my now five-year-old son. I have friends who go to the beach with me, with my five-year-old son.

Okay. And you know what we’re gonna talk about when we’re there, whatever we wanna talk about, because I know that by creating that context where we can have the freedom of the conversation, something will emerge from that. 

Sam: Yeah. Charles, it’s been a pleasure to have the conversation. I have one final question. I mean, so much about what you’re talking about, has a direct implication is part of the future of work conversation. What is your hope for the future of work? 

Charles: My hope is that there’s a renaissance and the understanding that people in an organization are assets. And not cost centers, and that we invest in our people consistent with their role as assets and trying to find how we can reduce their participation as cost centers so that we can then support people to grow in their fields to then do the innovation that we want them to do instead of having them struggle, right? To sustain themselves in the leanest possible environment. 

Sam: Charles, thanks for taking time. 

Charles: Thank you for inviting me.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Community, Culture, Skills, Work, Coaches, Management, Leadership

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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